THE BLOG
11/24/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

How to Pick a College President

I have never been persuaded that leaders in higher education should be selected from academics. Or, more precisely, I doubt that the customary responsibilities of a faculty member prepares her to preside over an institution of higher education. The skill sets needed for longevity heading a college do not overlap significantly with the talent and training of the typical scholar-teacher, especially in these times of unceasing change. The selection of professors and the expectations of them are not intended to foster development of diverse competencies.

My thinking was reinforced recently by an executive education program at Harvard. The refresher offered me an opportunity for reflection. Any teacher should reverse roles from time to time. Being a student is an excellent means of learning how to serve them.

I do not hesitate to state that I was not the best person to select for the job I am honored to hold. That person likely is mythical.

I run a standalone law school affiliated with a great system of public higher education. To the extent I have been qualified as a candidate, and, more importantly, successful as an office holder, it has been because of an eclectic mix of activities I have done beyond my day-to-day work along the way. I volunteered on boards and government commissions, and I kept busy as a public speaker and media commentator. I was the faculty member who could upset colleagues, always running around doing something else. (For example, as a university trustee, I took part in three presidential searches from the other side of the table.)

At the seminar, I realized I was not alone. My peers face similar challenges. They too had made a transition, some coming up through a faculty senate or other body not necessarily aligned with the administration; others had come straight out of government.

All schools except the most elite are being forced to look anew at their "business model" as much as intellectuals might hope to avoid such a term. The issues are complex. They are not abstract.

Our stakeholders demand pragmatism. Their expectations are not only conflicting but also increasing: higher rankings, better student services, more transparency, development of metrics for learning outcomes, enhanced research -- all with the realities of reduced state funding and the hopes for lower tuition.

A chancellor or president of a campus or system is concerned with budgets, management of personnel and risks, fundraising, communications and marketing -- for a public school, legislative relations too. She must be able to handle a crisis and cultivate the governing board. None of this is done by a solitary figure.

Completion of these tasks all depend on an ability to work well with other people as a part of a team. Some academic disciplines encourage group effort, but other fields are individual pursuits.

Thus the brilliance of an idea is nothing more than beautiful if it cannot be implemented. Good decision-making processes, best practices, standard operating procedures, and principled compromise must be pursued.

We must remain conversant with the substance of higher education. That is the core of the enterprise.

Our responsibilities are at a strategic level, setting agendas, policies and priorities. The content of the curriculum in its details is decided primarily by the faculty led by the chief academic officer (the Provost). The general orientation of the education, the mode of its delivery, and its costs, however, are properly for consideration by a chief executive officer (not that such a term is appropriate in academe).

Professors have background in specialized subjects as well as, we hope, pedagogy. Nothing in the writing of articles and books, nor in Socratic dialogue about civil procedure, evidence, and ethics readied me for functions I might have regarded as mundane but which turn out to be anything but easy.

It was imperative for me to advance at least to amateur status in multiple disciplines, virtually immediately. While I did not need to become an accountant, I did need to be able to converse with accountants -- and even oversee them. (A prior program at Harvard helped me, as well as the mistakes we call experience.)

A college president has many observers and more than a few critics. The characteristics that allow her to thrive include intangibles such as commitment, resilience, and a sense of humor. Among the stupidest things I have ever believed is that being smart was all that mattered. (Perhaps for someone smarter than me it would be sufficient.)

I am pleased to see that search committees consider "non-traditional" candidates from the public and for-profit sectors. I am friends with many such persons who have done very well. So long as they will work within the norms of shared governance, they can do just fine. They support others who lead a life of the mind, which means respecting its value.

There is another reason I resist the notion of a "best qualified." The choice, in a search that has been set up properly, is not between a single candidate who is superior versus the rest of the field. It usually is among options. Capable people present alternative visions.

The conclusion to which I come has general applicability beyond higher education. The best conductors of orchestras have not always been the best soloists; the best sports teams managers have only sometimes been the superstar athletes. They were good enough to have been professionals though, and they nurture talent.

Technical expertise is crucial at the beginning of a career. The true master can make a great life for herself within her field. That is admirable as a course.

Anyone who would be a leader of a community consisting of geniuses must be humbled -- genuinely.

Yet the individual who aspires to head an institution must be different. She should practice a range of proficiencies beyond the paradigm of "publish or perish" or its equivalent in her industry. Breadth matters as much as depth.

Adaptation is vital.